Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Expert Offers Guidance on Helping Seniors Handle COVID-19 Stresses

Navigating the critical need for social distancing and the enduring human need for social contact is a challenge for nearly everyone living through the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. For seniors—at heightened risk of serious complications from COVID-19, yet also susceptible to the adverse effects of loneliness and social isolation—it may be especially trying.

Psychiatrists and mental health professionals can assist seniors during this time by drawing on their strengths of experience and resilience as well as resources available in the community.

“This is a perfect storm,” Yeates Conwell, M.D., director of the University of Rochester Medical Center Office for Aging Research and Health Services, said of the delicate balance between the need for social distancing and the psychiatric risks of loneliness in older adults. For instance, data from Hong Kong following the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic showed that there was nearly a 30% increase in suicide among people aged 65 or older, with women at higher risk than men. Moreover, research looking at coroners’ reports suggested that what was driving the phenomenon, in addition to fear of becoming ill, was loneliness and loss of social support, according to Conwell. “We have also known for a long time that social connectedness is protective [against suicide],” he said.

But seniors have important strengths that can be leveraged, Conwell said. By virtue of age and experience, older people can often accept dramatic changes, such as are being necessitated by the pandemic, with greater equanimity than can younger people. Moreover, seniors have learned to value close relationships with a handful of really important people in their lives over large numbers of superficial acquaintances.

In addition, Conwell offered the following recommendations for mental health professionals working with older patients:

  • Advise patients and family members to be creative about using telephone, Skype, Zoom, or other technologies to maintain regular contact with the most important people in patients’ lives. Social distancing can be mitigated by staying in contact—through whatever means are available—with the people who matter most.
  • Empower patients by reminding them that they can be helpful to others by initiating contact with grandchildren and other family and friends. Loneliness tends to be embarrassing to talk about and stigmatizing, Conwell said, but seniors can be the ones who offer solace and companionship to those suffering from social distancing.
  • Encourage patients to get regular exercise. Even taking walks outside while maintaining an appropriate distance from other individuals is mentally and physically beneficial. Moreover, maintaining a regular schedule with daily times set aside for walking or other exercise can help maintain a sense of normalcy.
  • Psychiatrists can work with social service agencies in the community that will help older adults with social connectedness. In Rochester, Conwell partners with the nonprofit Lifespan, a community aging services agency helping people stay connected by delivering meals and providing in-home and telephone-based supports.

“There is only so much that health care professionals can do in the current crisis,” Conwell said. “This is a problem that requires a public health approach that includes drawing on resources in the community that are there to help in times of crisis and can be enormously beneficial to older people and their physicians.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Loneliness Persists Even When Older Adults Live in Social Environments.”

(Image: iStock/Eva-Katalin)

APA’s COVID-19 Resource Center Keeps You Updated

APA’s COVID-19 Resource Center brings together a number of useful resources from APA and other authoritative sources to help you deal with the COVID-19.


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